Religious Liberty and the Catholic Church in the U.S.

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By Anthony Yetzer, Ascension Blog, February 19, 2018

In a society in which all religions are considered equal under the law, it can be easy to forget that this was not always the case in America. John F. Kennedy, the first and only Catholic president of the United States, assumed the office in 1961. A little over three hundred years prior, the state of his birth, then the Massachusetts Bay Colony, passed a law condemning any Catholic priest found in the colony to death; although, no priest was ever executed as a result of this law because there was never even a single Catholic in the colony during the first twenty years of its existence.This is understandable when one considers the numbers. As of 2016, there are upwards of seventy million registered Catholics in the United States, but Catholics were not always such a large presence here. Even in seventeenth century colonial Maryland, Catholics made up less than a quarter of the population, and the colony had been specifically founded as a haven for Catholics fleeing persecution in the Old World. Elsewhere in the colonies, their numbers were minuscule or non-existent. At the beginning of the 1700’s, New York City, then a town of five thousand residents, contained only nine Catholics. Nevertheless, the “papists” were passionately hated by the vast majority in Protestant colonial America. It was not until after the Revolutionary War that Catholics gained the right to hold public office or even vote.

It is nothing short of remarkable then that there has almost always been at least one Catholic on the Supreme Court since Roger B. Taney was first appointed to the bench in 1836, making for a total of thirteen Catholic justices in the nation’s history. What brought about the change? The answer may surprise you. Catholics themselves played a large part during the colonial period in gaining freedom of worship for themselves and others.

Calvert’s Colony

England’s North American colonies were largely settled by Protestant dissidents who viewed the Church of England as too Catholic. This is amusing when one considers that English Catholics fled England because they felt the Church of England was too Protestant. They were right. Once united to Rome in its very soul, the Reformation had made short work of Catholicism in England. The monasteries were dissolved, priests were killed or driven into hiding, and the populace that had once been so fiercely Catholic came to embrace the severance with Rome. Catholics were looked upon with fear and hatred, holding as they did an “alien allegiance.” While many fled to France, one among their dwindling numbers in England turned his face to the western seas and dreamed of what lay beyond, freedom. Alas, it was not for George Calvert to see his dream to fruition. Rather, it was his son Cecil, Lord Baltimore, who saw the founding of Maryland as a haven for Catholics in the New World in 1634, exactly a century after Henry VIII had broken ties with the Catholic Church.

The difference between Lord Baltimore’s Maryland and the other colonies regarding religious liberty is profound. As described earlier, Catholics were just as hated in the rest of the Thirteen Colonies as they were in their mother country; and this hatred was not confined to Puritan New England. Even in Anglican Georgia, the 1732 charter granted by George II allowed full religious freedom for all with the sole exception of “papists.” This was essentially the case in every English colony with the obvious exception of Maryland, but also Pennsylvania and New York. In New York, this toleration was limited to when she had a Catholic governor—Thomas Dongan, Second Earl of Limerick—from 1682 to 1688. He had been installed by New York’s namesake—James II, Duke of York—who was overthrown in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 for his Catholicism. Afterwards, the colony became so hostile to Catholics “that it is doubtful if any remained in New York” as noted by historian John Tracy Ellis’s 1965 work, Catholics in Colonial America.  Pennsylvania, while promising freedom of conscience to all who believe in God, remained wary of Catholics due to their “foreign allegiance.”  As such, they were barred from holding public office. In the end, Maryland stood alone in its early grant of religious liberty for all, with no exceptions.

George Calvert

In order to preserve religious liberty for the Catholic colonists, Lord Baltimore ensured that the right to worship of any Protestants in Maryland was respected. From the very inception of the colony he wrote a letter to the Catholic colonists instructing them to practice their own faith “as privately as may be” on their journey to Maryland and after they arrive, as this would prevent complaints being lodged against them in “Virginea or in England.” The Protestant inhabitants of Maryland acknowledged the great measure of religious liberty afforded to them by Lord Baltimore. His generous spirit of toleration was truly extended to all, as even a Jewish man was allowed to practice his faith. J. Moss Ives, in a 1935 article for The Catholic Historical Review,relates a story in which Dr. Jacob Lumbrozo was set upon in Maryland by Puritans for being Jewish.  “Although technically guilty under the Act of 1649, he was released from custody and granted the privileges and immunities of a freeman.”  The Maryland Colony’s spirit of tolerance even reached the Native American inhabitants, toward whom they had remarkably cordial relations when compared with the other colonies.

It was not until toleration was established in law by the Maryland Toleration Act that the promise of religious liberty would be limited to only Trinitarian Christians. According to Ives, the Act “was a compromise measure and passed at a time when a group of Protestants whose idea of tolerance meant only tolerance for themselves, was fast gaining control of the colony.” Due to persecution in Virginia by the established Church of England, Lord Baltimore allowed Puritans from Virginia to settle in Maryland. Langford’s account from 1655 describes these as “ungrateful people” who pursued “certaine strange and humane proceedings.”  Simply put, they resented having to swear an oath of loyalty to Lord Baltimore upon immigrating to Maryland, viewing such an action as asking them “to countenance and uphold Antichrist, in plain words exprest in the Officers Oath, the Roman Catholick Religion.”  They proceeded to engage in armed rebellion, rather than swear allegiance to a Roman Catholic governor.  The result of this rebellion was the Maryland Toleration Act, and, as seen in the case of the Jewish doctor, the Act only limited the vision of religious liberty Lord Baltimore wished to extend.

As the seventeenth century came to a close, it became clear that the religious liberty sought by so many through coming to the Colonies was ultimately unobtainable for Catholics in colonial society. The Maryland Toleration Act remained in force for a mere five years; it was overturned when Protestants gained control of the colony’s government in 1654 due to the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell in England. Though Calvert’s government was shortly thereafter restored, along with the Act, the Glorious Revolution and the ascension to the throne of William and Mary in 1688 caused a Protestant government to once again come to power in Maryland. The Toleration Act was repealed in October of 1694. This time, the Protestant governance of Maryland was permanent. What came to be known as Maryland’s “Protestant Revolution” deprived Catholics of participating in many basic societal functions. They could not serve in the military, practice law, or build churches. Similar laws were passed in the other colonies as a result of the Glorious Revolution, merely strengthening the already existing prejudice against Catholics. By the mid-eighteenth century, Catholics were forbidden from voting, even in Maryland. This remained the state of affairs up until the Revolutionary War. George Calvert’s longed for haven and the only place where Catholics had complete freedom of conscience in colonial society was no more.

Carroll’s Country

The Protestant Revolution was not the end of the story for religious liberty in America, however. A new champion would emerge to stand on the foundations Lord Baltimore had laid, Charles Carroll of Carrollton. The only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, he was also the last surviving signer, passing away at the ripe old age of ninety-five years in 1832. His status as the last of the Founding Fathers gave him great fame. Though the most prominent of the family, Charles was not the only Carroll involved in championing religious liberty during the founding period. His cousins, John Carroll and Daniel Carroll, played significant roles as well. John would become the well-liked and persuasive bishop of Baltimore, the first Roman Catholic bishop of the United States, while Daniel served in the Continental Congress and later in the House of Representatives. All these men had attended the same Jesuit schools, particularly St. Omers in France, where they no doubt imbibed the legacy of St. Thomas More and his death for freedom of conscience at the hands of Henry VIII during the sixteenth century. They themselves and their forefathers had experienced persecution in Ireland and the Colonies. The family deeply appreciated the promise of religious liberty to be found in Maryland.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton

It was in a climate of desolation for religious liberty in the British Empire that the Carroll family emerged in colonial society. With the ascension of William and Mary to the throne in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Charles Carroll of Carrollton’s grandfather, also named Charles (hereafter referred to as “the Settler”), moved his family to Maryland that same year—at the invitation of Charles Calvert, Third Lord Baltimore—to be his attorney general and de facto representative to the colony’s government. In Ireland, the Carrolls had been a noble family, descended from the ancient kings. They had made a name for themselves as vicious foes of the English invaders of their country and fierce adherents to the Catholic Church. Lord Baltimore intended to make Charles Carroll his real successor in preference against his eldest son who had abandoned Catholicism for Anglicanism. This scion of the Calvert line, Benedict, would go on to regain control over Maryland’s government for the family via his infamous conversion in 1713. Though Maryland was restored to the Calverts, power came at the price of abandoning the faith of his fathers. The Carroll family, rather than his faithless descendants, became the heirs of Lord Baltimore’s purpose for establishing Maryland in the first place, religious liberty.

The religious liberty the Settler sought in Maryland ultimately could not be found, nor did he remain attorney general for long. The Protestant Revolution occurred not long after their arrival, and the Carrolls found themselves in an oppressive society no better than Ireland. At one point, the Settler was actually jailed for his belligerent Catholicism. Nevertheless, if anything, they were resourceful and, in marked contrast to Benedict Calvert, determined to maintain their faith at all costs. They settled down, like many other Catholic families in Maryland at the time, to follow business pursuits, the only avenue still left open for them in colonial society in the aftermath of the Protestant Revolution. However, even this course was fraught with dangers. They did not enjoy the legal protections that their fellow Protestant colonists did. As a result, all they gained through business could be stripped from them with no legal recourse under the common law.

A Blow Struck

Despite the opposition, the Catholics in Maryland fared incredibly well financially during the eighteenth century before the American Revolution. As a result, the Catholic minority became wealthier than the Protestant majority. Ironically, the developing wealth disparity between the two added further fuel to Protestant persecution of Catholics. Feeling they had endured persecution in the English Colonies long enough, Charles Carroll of Annapolis, the son of the Settler, toyed with the idea of removing his family and wealth to Catholic French Louisiana. His son, Charles Carroll of Carrollton, convinced the elder Carroll to stay in Maryland. He hoped that eventually the “prejudices and animosity” of the colony’s Protestants would fade as they earned wealth by their own efforts, thus easing their “eager longing after other men’s property.” As war between the Colonies and Great Britain drew nigh, the Carrolls chose to support the Patriot side during the Revolutionary War. Independence from Great Britain meant more opportunities for Protestants to gain in wealth, thus reducing, as the Carrolls saw, a major source of the motivation behind anti-Catholic bigotry in eighteenth century colonial America. Later describing his reasons for signing the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton declared that he struck a blow for “not only our independence of England but the toleration of all sects professing the Christian religion and communicating to them all equal rights.”

With the Revolution won, the Carrolls set to work on establishing religious liberty for the newly formed United States. The actions of these cousins, a clergyman, a representative, and a senator, ensured the passage of the First Amendment through their efforts in the press and legislature. The wishes of these Catholic Founding Fathers were not without opposition. Just as Catholics viewed victory in the Revolution as a chance to win religious freedom, some Protestants viewed the same outcome as an opportunity to establish Protestantism as the official faith of the new country. Several articles appeared in various parts of the land to this effect, such as one in the Columbian Magazine in Philadelphia and the United States Gazette in New York. The one in the Gazette was called, “The Importance of the Protestant Religion Politically Considered.” This was ably answered by John Carroll, Bishop of Baltimore in a reply which appeared in the Gazette of June 10, 1789, which Ives refers to as “one of the strongest appeals for religious liberty that has ever been made.” The bishop pointed out that, even with victory in the Revolution, there remained states which refused rights to certain citizens in their newly formed constitutions on the basis of religious prejudice. He went on to declare this paradigm to be fundamentally unjust since all citizens, no matter their faith, had fought and bled together in the Revolution.

Meanwhile, on the legislative front, Daniel and Charles worked tirelessly to see that the First Amendment became the law of the land. Daniel was permitted by James Madison to open debate in the House of Representatives on the matter. In the Senate, Charles served as a senator and chaired the Senate Committee on Conference which was responsible for the final draft of the Bill of Rights, no doubt utilizing his influence in the committee to effect a favorable outcome for the passage of the final document. With the passage of the First Amendment, the dream of the Calverts and Carrolls for religious liberty had been achieved. These Catholic men played a pivotal role in securing it for all Americans.

What has been the outcome of the religious liberty Catholics now enjoy and helped to bring about in America? The sacrifices of the Calverts and Carrolls on behalf of religious freedom enabled future immigrants, many of whom have been Catholics, to come to a land where they are free to practice their faith. It has allowed the development of Catholic scholarship in America. In fact, the dogged existence of parochial schools singlehandedly preserved private education in this country. Also, religious liberty allows apostolates, such as Ascension and many others, to proclaim the faith in American society.

I began this article by referencing John F. Kennedy as an example of how far Catholics have come in American society. John F. Kennedy is a very public example of this for both good and ill. With the end of persecution, the Church became too comfortable with the surrounding secular culture. Like Benedict Calvert, JFK and many other American Catholics subordinated his faith to the American Dream and worldly success. It seems then that both the disease and the cure was contained in the actions of Calverts and the Carrolls on behalf of religious freedom. Religious freedom is a gift from God. Like any such gift, it can be used or misused. As Catholics, let us honor the legacy of our American Catholic forbearers by committing to be grateful to God for this gift and to use it wisely.